Why Aren’t Audiences Stupid? (Andy Version)
I tried to post this as a comment over at HuffPo, but it was too long. So here goes:
“This is a scary trend.” – Really?
God forbid that the actual audience should have a a place to voice their response to a work of art. But maybe that should be restricted to talkbacks? I’ve always believed that art encourages questions whereas entertainment confirms what we already know. The magic of live performance – even the most traditional forms – is that the audience is never really a passive watcher – they are engaged and their response informs the performance. The internet as a forum for authentic feedback and reaction is vital to the growth, development and continued relevancy of the discipline.
As to Kaiser’s lament about the death of criticism – if the commercial media are no longer able or willing to subsidize arts coverage (how many cities actually have a “local professional critic” anymore?) and Kaiser feels that criticism is an essential part of the arts ecology, then why haven’t foundations stepped in to support the field? I’ve run Culturebot.org, since December 2003. Over the past eight years I have met with numerous funders who express their admiration and appreciation of what I do but are unable or unwilling to provide funding. The Andy Warhol Foundation supports visual arts writing including blogs – artfagcity.com has received several large grants – but there is no support for performing arts writers and critics. Because the visual arts world is in the business of creating objects or sale, it recognizes the importance of criticism and writing to creating perceived value around art. The performance world has yet to glom onto that and as a result the work continues to be undervalued.
At Culturebot.org we have provided many, many artists with their first reviews and exposure, we have opened a window into the sometimes murky and non-transparent world of contemporary performance – and the process behind making the work. We have fostered dialogue and become an important resource for curators, presenters, artists and aficionados. Not to mention the support we’ve been able to give aspiring writers and critics by giving them access to artists, performances and administrators, a forum for honing their voice and an opportunity to foster discussion. And we do it for free, because we care about the arts and we want to participate.
Are we amateurs? No. Kaiser’s derogatory use of the term indicates a startling lack of respect for audience members and a lack of knowledge about the composition of that audience. He might be surprised to learn how many people in the audience actually know what they are talking about. Not everyone can afford to get a Master’s in arts admin, criticism, dance, theater, etc. only to come into a job market where your best option is a $30K/year, 60hr/wk job in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Much less take time off from their life to study with Kaiser in the Kennedy Center Fellowship for Arts Management. Thus the established arts infrastructure tends to skew to people who are either willing to live penuriously or have other resources to draw on.
Even fewer people can make a living as an artist.
So the audience for the arts – and the people who are passionate enough to frequent cultural institutions, comment on their sites or start their own blogs – are frequently educated, knowledgeable, committed individuals who, you know, have actual jobs. They are artists and former artists, they are friends and families of artists, they are people who grew up or into an appreciation of the arts for any number of reasons but because of the necessities of making a living are relegated to “amateur” status. Sure there are some ill-informed writers and commenters out there, but as I’ve watched arts writing on the internet evolve over the past eight years I’ve been surprised by the quality of writing, the knowledge of the writers and the vitality of the discussion.
It is, frequently, the programmers and the arts institutions that are completely out of touch with audiences, that make no effort to actually engage audience and communities in the process of making art or curating seasons. The infrastructure is not transparent or responsive to the community. Structured talkbacks are insufficient and if you are a presenter who produces challenging work, you should probably do some kind of humanities program that contextualizes what is being presented, offering the audience a 360-degree view, rather than just demanding that they submit to your aesthetic preferences. This doesn’t happen. Most arts institutions just present what they present as if it was a gift from on high and expect us to appreciate their refined taste and sensibilities. Guess what? Most of us went to college, too! Most of us read, see work, are informed about current events and aesthetic engagement with the world at large, most of us have been art-makers, or writers, or supporters at any number of levels and our opinions are not only important – they’re kind of the only opinions that matter. After all, we’re the audience. And if a tree falls onstage and no-one is there to see it, is it performance?
Kaiser’s article reflects how out of touch many in the arts establishment are with the reality on the ground – it is sad and frustrating. Considering how much influence he has it is a shame that he is so reactionary and ill-informed, so unwilling to affect actual change and innovation.